A conjecture is a proposition that is unproven. Karl Popper pioneered the use of the term "conjecture" in scientific philosophy. Conjecture is contrasted by hypothesis (hence theory, axiom, principle), which is a testable statement based on accepted grounds. In mathematics, a conjecture is an unproven proposition that appears correct.
- The P versus NP problem
- Beal's conjecture
- The Poincaré theorem (proven by Grigori Perelman)
- Goldbach's conjecture
- The Riemann hypothesis
- The Collatz conjecture
- The Manin conjecture
- The Maldacena conjecture
- Fermat's Last Theorem (proven by Andrew Wiles)
The Langlands program is a far-reaching web of these ideas of 'unifying conjectures' that link different subfields of mathematics, e.g. number theory and representation theory of Lie groups; some of these conjectures have since been proved.
Formal mathematics is based on provable truth. In mathematics, any number of cases supporting a conjecture, no matter how large, is insufficient for establishing the conjecture's veracity, since a single counterexample would immediately bring down the conjecture. Conjectures disproven through counterexample are sometimes referred to as false conjectures (cf. Pólya conjecture).
Mathematical journals sometimes publish the minor results of research teams having extended a given search farther than previously done. For instance, the Collatz conjecture, which concerns whether or not certain sequences of integers terminate, has been tested for all integers up to 1.2 × 1012 (over a trillion). In practice, however, it is extremely rare for this type of work to yield a counterexample and such efforts are generally regarded as mere displays of computing power, rather than meaningful contributions to formal mathematics.
Use of conjectures in conditional proofs
Sometimes a conjecture is called a hypothesis when it is used frequently and repeatedly as an assumption in proofs of other results. For example, the Riemann hypothesis is a conjecture from number theory that (amongst other things) makes predictions about the distribution of prime numbers. Few number theorists doubt that the Riemann hypothesis is true. In anticipation of its eventual proof, some have proceeded to develop further proofs which are contingent on the truth of this conjecture. These are called conditional proofs: the conjectures assumed appear in the hypotheses of the theorem, for the time being.
These "proofs", however, would fall apart if it turned out that the hypothesis was false, so there is considerable interest in verifying the truth or falsity of conjectures of this type.
Not every conjecture ends up being proven true or false. The continuum hypothesis, which tries to ascertain the relative cardinality of certain infinite sets, was eventually shown to be undecidable (or independent) from the generally accepted set of axioms of set theory. It is therefore possible to adopt this statement, or its negation, as a new axiom in a consistent manner (much as we can take Euclid's parallel postulate as either true or false).
In this case, if a proof uses this statement, researchers will often look for a new proof that doesn't require the hypothesis (in the same way that it is desirable that statements in Euclidean geometry be proved using only the axioms of neutral geometry, i.e. no parallel postulate.) The one major exception to this in practice is the axiom of choice—unless studying this axiom in particular, the majority of researchers do not usually worry whether a result requires the axiom of choice.
- Popper, Karl (2004). Conjectures and refutations : the growth of scientific knowledge. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-28594-1.
- Schwartz JL (1995). Shuttling between the particular and the general: reflections on the role of conjecture and hypothesis in the generation of knowledge in science and mathematics. Link pg 93.
- Langlands, Robert (1967), Letter to Prof. Weil
- For example, see the 1997 Four color theorem#Proof by computer, which was initially doubted, as proof by brute force, but which was eventually proven in 2005 by theorem-proving software.
- Imre Lakatos' posthumous 1976 book, Proofs and Refutations shows that the philosophical position is an important factor for the mathematician producing an attempted proof.
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