Do most mathematicians know most topics in mathematics?

Sid Caroline 08/21/2017. 8 answers, 12.112 views
soft-question

How many topics outside of his or her specialization is an average mathematician familiar with?

For example, does an average group theorist know enough of partial differential equations to pass a test in a graduate-level PDE course?

Also, what are the "must-know" topics for any aspiring mathematician? Why?

As a graduate student, should I focus more on breadth (choosing a wide range of classes that are relatively pair-wise unrelated, e.g., group theory and PDEs) or depth (e.g., measure theory and functional analysis)?

5 Comments
5 Mattos 07/27/2017
Just so you know, group theory is used in the study of partial differential equations, mostly to exploit any symmetries a PDE might have.
53 Cauchy 07/27/2017
No, an average group theorist will get a fat $0$ in a graduate level PDE course (he/she might have studied PDE at some point, but he/she most definitely forgot everything).
23 Cauchy 07/27/2017
In general, however, most mathematicians have a bit of exposure to a wide variety of topics so that if they needed a certain tool from some other branch they can (relatively) quickly brush up on the material and read the relevant literature.
1 owjburnham 07/27/2017
I suspect that this may be country specific, and so worth tagging? I (in the UK) have never had to take a single test as a graduate student (thank goodness).
6 Robin Saunders 07/29/2017
@Myles, I've more often heard that said of Poincaré.

8 Answers


P. Siehr 07/27/2017.

Your question is philosophical rather than mathematical.

A colleague of mine told me the following metaphor / illustration once when I was a bachelor student and he did his PhD. And since now some years have passed I can relate.

It is hard to write it. Think about drawing a huge circle in the air, zooming in, and then drawing a huge circle again.

This is all knowledge:

[--------------------------------------------]

All knowledge contains a lot, and math is only a tiny part in it - marked with the cross:

[---------------------------------------x----]
                                        |
Zooming in:
[xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx]

Mathematical research is divided into many topics. Algebra, number theory, and many others, but also numerical mathematics. That is this tiny part here:

[xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxoxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx]
                    |                    
Zooming in:
[oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo]

Numerical Math is divided into several topics as well, like ODE numerics, optimisation etc. And one of them is FEM-Theory for PDEs.

[oooooooooooooooooooρoooooooooooooooooooooooo]
                    |                    

And that is the part of knowledge, where I feel comfortable saying "I know a bit more than most other people in the world".
Now after some years, I would extend that illustration one more step: My knowledge in that part rather looks like

[   ρ    ρρ  ρ         ρ   ρ          ρ     ρ]

I still only know "a bit" about it, most of it I don't know, and most of what I had learned is already forgotten.

(Actually FEM-Theory is still a huge topic, that contains e.g. different kinds of PDEs [elliptic, parabolic, hyperbolic, other]. So you could do the "zooming" several times more.)


Another small wisdom is: Someone who finished school thinks he knows everything. Once he gained his masters degree, he knows that he knows nothing. And after the PhD he knows that everyone around him knows nothing as well.


Asking about your focus: IMO use the first few years to explore topics in math to find out what you like. Then go deeper - if you found what you like.

Are there "must know" topics? There are basics that you learn in the first few terms. Without them it is hard to "speak" and "do" math. You will learn the tools that you need to dig deeper. After that feel free to enjoy math :)
If your research focus is for example on PDE numerics (as mine is) but you also like pure math - go ahead and take a lecture. Will it help you? Maybe, maybe not. But for sure you had fun gaining knowledge, and that is what counts.

Don't think too much about what lectures to attend. Everything will turn out all right. I think most mathematicians will agree with that statement.

4 comments
46 Eff 07/27/2017
This is similar to the The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D..
10 Mars 07/30/2017
For the record, I am a professional philosopher (Ph.D. in philosophy, job as a professor, all that). Soo ... in my professional opinion, this question is not philosophical. It's empirical. OP asks for empirical generalizations about mathematicians. P. Siehr's suggestion is that the question is stated imprecisely or is based on incorrect assumptions. That doesn't make the question or its possible answers philosophical. (fwiw I don't agree with P. Siehr that the question as stated can't be answered, and my remarks are not meant as support for amWhy's comments.)
3 Joonas Ilmavirta 08/01/2017
@Mars It should be noted that "philosophical" in a mathematical context does not usually refer to the field of philosophy at all, but to almost any mathematically relevant or inspired thought outside rigorous and formal mathematics. (I hope mathematicians using the word recognize this!) I agree that the question is not philosophical in the actual sense of the word, but I do think it's philosophical in the sense employed by many mathematicians.
Mars 08/09/2017
Ah, that's interesting @JoonasIlmavirta. Thanks.

Georges Elencwajg 07/27/2017.

The answer to your question is easy:
No, an average mathematician specialized in, say, algebraic geometry could not pass without preparation a graduate level exam on partial differential equations.
Wait, it's worse than that: he couldn't even pass an undergraduate level exam on partial differential equations.
Wait, it's even worse: he couldn't pass an exam in algebraic geometry on a different specialized topic from his own. For example an elementary exam on the classification of singularities if he is specialised in Hilbert schemes.
Conversely I would be very surprised if a notorious analyst who recently got a Fields medal could solve the exercises in, say, Chapter 5 of Fulton's Algebraic Curves, the standard introduction to undergraduate algebraic geometry.

Some remarks
1) What I wrote is easy to confirm in private but impossible to prove in public:
I can't very well write that in a recent conversation XXX, a respected probabilist, abundantly proved that he had no idea what the fundamental group of the circle is.

2) If author YYY wrote an article on partial differential equations using techniques from amenable group, this doesn't imply that other specialists in his field know any group theory.
It doesn't even prove that YYY knew much about group theory: he may have realised that group theory was involved in his research and interviewed a group theorist who would have told him about amenable groups.

3) On the bright side some very exceptional mathematicians seem to know a lot about nearly every subject in mathematics: Atiyah, Deligne, Serre, Tao come to mind.
My sad conjecture is that their number is a function tending to zero as time passes.
And although I couldn't ace an analysis exam, I'm aware what this means for an $\mathbb N$-valued function...

5 comments
11 Alfred Yerger 07/27/2017
We have some people in my department who at the very least can comment on a large variety of subfields within a broad discipline. Several geometers come to mind who have something intelligent to say about a great many areas of geometry. Maybe it's not possible to know everything. But hopefully it is still possible to know a lot of things about a lot of things. I think that's probably good enough, since now there are so many more things to know!
1 Santropedro 07/28/2017
Georges, When you say "Conversely I would be very surprised if a notorious analyst who recently got a Fields medal could solve the exercises in, say, Chapter 5 of Fulton's Algebraic Curves, the standard introduction to undergraduate algebraic geometry." how much time are they allowed to think each exercise? If we give them enough time to read the book and practice, sure enough to me they would solve them. Aren't they allowed to read the book, and have to solve them on the spot, in how much time?
8 Georges Elencwajg 07/28/2017
Dear @Santropedro, of course if that brilliant analyst was given a week or two he could read the book and then solve its exercises. The point I wanted to make is that he probably couldn't solve them with what he knows right now.
2 Michael Kay 07/28/2017
Some years ago I thought it would be amusing to try and tackle a GCSE maths paper (for 16 year olds) that my daughter brought home. At that age I would have sailed through it with no difficulty. I found I couldn't answer a single question, even though my work in software engineering involves regular exposure to quite a lot of maths.
2 Georges Elencwajg 07/30/2017
@Mars: yes, that's exactly the point. The OP asked about subjects a mathematician was familiar with. The question whether he could familiarize himself with such a subject and how long it would take is completely different, and quite correlated with the notion of being "brilliant".

MCS 07/29/2017.

My two cents: unless you have a magical brain, or are some sort of epoch-making genius, you're probably going to find that you can only hold only so much mathematics in your mind at any given time. So, for practical reasons—both with respect to writing a dissertation, and with respect to making a career for one's self—you should probably stick to one or two closely related areas, so that you might have sufficient expertise to make yourself useful to a research institution or to whatever it is that you wish to do with your future.

That being said, I've found that elbow grease and skill in mathematics are often woefully uncorrelated with one another. Rather, skill is often dependent more on how much mathematics one has seen. To that end, I would say, though you should definitely pick a subject area or two to call your own, you should strive keep an open mind and maintain an active interest in as wide a variety of mathematical disciplines as possible.

I often find that reading (even if only casually) about forms of mathematics unrelated to my research areas provides a wealth of new ideas and insights. The more patterns and phenomena you are acquainted with, the better the chance that you'll notice something of interest intruding upon your work, and that might give you some intuition you might not have otherwise had. At the very least, it will help you know what topics or sources (or collaborators...) to look up when you stumble across something outside of your area of greatest expertise.

Edit: One more thing. Linear algebra. To paraphrase Benedict Gross, there's no such thing as knowing too much Linear algebra. It's freakin' everywhere.


paul garrett 07/27/2017.

There is, of course, terrific ambiguity in the question. But, with any interpretation, the answer would be generally, "no, most practitioners of some part of X do not remember all of X... because they do not need to".

Thus, if only because most even-very-smart people's memories fade with time, there'll only be a slight residue of the standard-basic things in the mind of mathematicians who're working on one particular sort of thing for some years. Apart from teaching calculus, there's scant need to remember much else. Yes, from the viewpoint of scholarship, this is potentially distressing, but, in fact, in nearly all professional mathematics situations, there's scant motivation/reward for genuine scholarship. It somehow does not fit into salary-increase formulas, tenure, or much else. (Not that I myself care whether I try to understand things "for pay", or not...)

True, most graduate programs in the U.S. in mathematics do attempt to engender some minimal competency/appreciation for a big part of basic mathematics, but after "passing qualifiers" it seems that the vast majority of people do not find much interest in further pursuing broad scholarship, either in principle or for possible direct benefits.

Also, I take issue with the (what I think is) simplistic picture that "specialization" is like "zooming in with a microscope", and so on. Sure, this is a defensible world-view, and subject-wise world-view, and, sure, by one's actions one can make it be an accurate description... but I think it is not accurate of the reality. Specifically, I do not see the genuine ideas as being nearly so "localized" as a "physical zoom-microscope" would be relevant-to. That is, the idea that "math" can in any reasonable way be depicted as a physical thing, entailing all the local-ness that that implies, I think is wildly inaccurate. Again, yes, we can make it be accurate, if nothing else by ignorance or ignorant-fiat. But...


Dennis Jaheruddin 07/29/2017.

The question of how many mathematics topics an average mathematician knows, heavily depends on two definitions:

  1. Topic
  2. Know

Of course it also depends on other definitions (like mathematician) but to a lesser extent.

Quantitive approach to answer this question

Let us define levels of topics in the as follows, loosly based on wikipedia:

  1. Mathematics (1 topic on this level)
  2. Pure mathematics/ Applied mathematics (2 topics on this level)
  3. Algebra, ..., Operations research (13 topics on this level)
  4. Abstract algebra, Boolean algebra, ... (??? topics on this level)

Now, based on personal experience and an image of the average mathematician, I can answer how much such a mathematician would know about this, for each level:

  1. Can pass a graduate course on this topic
  2. Can pass a graduate course on these topics
  3. Can pass a graduate course on some of these topics, can pass an introductory course on most of these topics
  4. Can pass a graduate course on a few of these topics (perhaps 5~15%)

Note that if you move beyond level 4, you get so specific that you may not find complete graduate courses on such a topic. Hence my conclusion:

Based on personal experience, I expect an average mathematician to have decent knowledge of between 5% and 15% of topics on the graduate course level


Linas 07/29/2017.

I spent several years on a project to read the first 1-2 chapters of at least one math book on each shelf of the university library. It was an attempt to gain an unbiased survey of mathematics. It was good for me, but it was a luxury: the forced march through a PhD program and into academia offers little time for such behavior. Yet it's important: all of the very best, most famous mathematicians are clearly employing cross-disciplinary tools in their work. And, for me, personally, it was a kind of level-up: suddenly, everything is easier.

Specializing in one field is kind of like lifting weights with just your right arm, ignoring the core, back and legs: it leaves you surprisingly weak and incapable. When you have to master many different styles of abstraction, you get better at abstraction, in general, even in your chosen specialty. This, to me, was the big unexpected surprise.

For the more quantitative question asked here: could I "pass a test in graduate level XYZ course?" for a 1st-year, 1st semester course, maybe, probably. Sort-of. Exams tend to pose questions using phrasing and notation that are closely aligned with the class textbook, and this notation can vary strongly from one textbook to another. So for that, prep would be needed.The point is that such prep becomes easier.

1 comments
Lehs 07/29/2017
There should be a lot of math books in a university library. I would never be able to learn all the titles and certainly not all definitions in all those books. And it's just impossible to remember that much context. But a professional mathematician is probably able to understand the context of any of the books if he or she have to.

R K Sinha 08/07/2017.

There is a great dearth of textbooks at graduate-level in mathematics written with the aim of teaching the "true subject" as quickly as possible. "Smooth Manifolds by Sinha" is one such book. If many books of such type become available, then scholarship in mathematics wouldn't be a thing of laugh.


John Bentin 07/27/2017.

Certainly not. For example, the great mathematician Grothendieck was insufficiently well acquainted with arithmetic to recognize the integer $57$ as a non-prime. The many accounts of this story can be accessed by an internet search for the key terms; say, look for grothendieck prime 57.

5 comments
24 José Carlos Santos 07/27/2017
This is a ridiculous example! Grothendieck was thinking about primes in general. He simply couldn't care less about whether or not $57$ is a prime.
19 Georges Elencwajg 07/27/2017
The story is not made up: Grothendieck did make that silly blunder, in an exchange after a talk, after being asked to be more concrete by a member of the audience. Of course this doesn't change anything to the fact that Grothendieck was one of the most profound arithmeticians of the 20th century. And indeed 57 looks a bit prime for some psychological reason :-) . Conversely many mathematicians think I'm pulling their leg when I tell them that $4999$ is prime!
1 Dair 07/27/2017
I believe Terrance Tao also said 27 was prime on the Colbert report, or something like that :p (Not that he isn't well acquainted with primes, just an amusing anecdote) However, the better question is how do I know this? And, what am I doing with my life?
1 quid 07/27/2017
'But Grothendieck must have known that 57 is not prime, right? Absolutely not, said David Mumford of Brown University. “He doesn’t think concretely.”' Because certainly he did know it in the sense that he could have answered the question "Is 57 a prime number?" correctly, and this gets blurred there.
1 John R Ramsden 08/02/2017
If answering the original question by what seems the slightly tasteless approach of pointing out inevitable gaps in even the greatest mathematicians' knowledge, a better example than a silly arithmetic slip would have been when Grothendieck asked a colleague about a certain definite integral he had encountered, and was surprised to be told it was usually called the Normal Distribution.

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